Wretched Dark Shadows

The Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaborations have fallen into four categories: near-masterworks (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands), rather good films (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd), an interesting failure (Sleepy Hollow) and an outright disaster (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Alas, their latest, Dark Shadows, falls firmly into the fourth slot, and is indeed such a misfire it’s a puzzle why it was even made at all. Certainly the television series it’s based on was no classic (although some may argue the point), but this feature adaptation is a tedious and unsatisfying mixture of mawkish camp and Burton’s trademark “weirdness,” which — in this case — isn’t weird enough.

It begins promisingly with an 18th-century prologue in which Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) describes how he’d become a vampire by spurning the affections of a household servant, Angelique (Eva Green), who also happened to be a vengeful witch. Cursing him to immortality, she orders him buried in a silver-chained coffin where he lies trapped for nearly 200 years before being unearthed by a crew constructing a McDonald’s restaurant in 1972.

Barnabas makes his way back to Collinwood, his familial estate, and meets the current generation of Collinses: Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michele Pfeiffer), her brother, Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her daughter, Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz) and his son David (Gulliver McGrath). Also in residence is Willie (Jackie Earle Haley), the handyman/butler/caretaker, and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), a psychiatrist who’d been hired to treat the disturbed David after the tragic disappearance of his mother a few years earlier. A new arrival is Victoria Winters (Bella Heathcote) David’s new nanny, who instantly transfixes Barnabas as she is identical in appearance to Josette, the young woman whose love had cost him his humanity two hundred years before.

The Collins family is impoverished and Collinwood has fallen into ruin, but Barnabas tells Elizabeth that he can rebuild the family’s cannery business — and its fortunes — in exchange for allowing him to remain at the mansion (and remain close to Victoria). The immortal Angelique is still kicking around town, running a competing cannery, and she comes charging back into their lives for vengeance when she learns of her old flame’s resurrection.

Once this not-so-original plot is set in motion, desperation sets in pretty quickly, and most of the blame must be laid at the feet of screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith, who provided the story along with John August. Smith is the author of the bestselling mashup novel “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter,” whose upcoming film version was produced by Burton, and it throws into doubt just how good that film is going to be, given the creatively bereft nature of this one.

Lame fish-out-of-water gags are fobbed at the audience as Barnabas misunderstands modern technology (seeing Karen Carpenter performing on television provokes him to shout, “Reveal yourself, tiny songstress!”) while everyone else, puzzlingly, is more taken aback by his antiquated style of dress and manner of speaking than the fact that he is an undead vampire. There are even some truly flat-footed sex gags that are completely out of place in Burton’s universe.

For his part, Burton — who should have known better — has cobbled together a tone-deaf mashup which doesn’t make a lot of sense and is frankly not any fun.

A montage about 30 minutes into the film signals the point at which the writers have run out of ideas and we’re going to be subjected to circuitous tedium for another hour-and-a-half: Barnabas brushing his fangs while the camera makes a circular pan to the mirror, revealing no reflection save the toothbrush — ha ha ha — the senile old maid repeatedly opening a wardrobe without noticing Barnabas sleeping in various positions inside — ha ha ha — the old maid repeatedly making up a bed without noticing Barnabas hanging upside down from the curtains above it — ha ha ha… Like a basketball that’s sprung a leak, Dark Shadows loses its momentum until it’s a sagging mess.

And the cast is wasted. Pfeiffer, who’d demonstrated a lovely flair for comedy in 2007’s Stardust,  mostly acts annoyed here (and who wouldn’t?); Moretz’s hip, sullen Carolyn spends most of her time pouting and being hostile to her elders until her awful surprise! character twist; and Miller’s Roger could have been played by virtually anybody. When Carter first roars onto the scene in tacky clothes and copious amounts of awful blue eyeshadow, one’s hopes are temporarily raised that she’s going to channel the series’ original Dr. Hoffman, Grayson Hall, and deliver a big sizzling slice of ham, but unfortunately the griddle’s not hot enough.

Heathcote is okay as Victoria/Josette, but like the others, once her role has been established, it doesn’t have anywhere to go. And Haley, who has specialized in creepy characters since his career reboot as the child molester in 2006’s Little Children, is a puzzling choice to play Willie, whose decrepit appearance is at odds with the essentially harmless nature of the wisecracking character.

Green could’ve been so much fun as the lusty and evil-minded Angelique, but she’s let down by the “nyah-ha-ha” superficiality of the role. And Depp, who has been the go-to actor for weird characters for the last 20 years, seems committed to his performance as Barnabas but is similarly hamstrung by the lame script — and a bizarre, smooth-skinned makeup that gives him the appearance of being a wax replica of himself.

Danny Elfman’s riffs on the original score are promising at the beginning, and his constant underscore in the style of ’60s soap operas is fun at first, but once we get the gag, it becomes unnoticeable. The period songs seem to have been chosen simply because they’re of the period. The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” is played over the opening credits, and it doesn’t make any thematic sense. The Carpenters’ “Top of the World” is performed during the aforementioned horrendous montage and it likewise doesn’t fit.

Some of the art direction — the Liverpool prologue, the establishing shot of Collinwood — is nice, but a lot of it is ridiculous. A nighttime street scene makes the tiny town of Collinsport look  more like Greenwich Village, with a populace that appears to be a combination of hip twenty-somethings and old sea salts (including a cameo-ing Christopher Lee). When Barnabas wants to have a ball at the mansion (and yes, there’s an unwelcome series of terrible “ball” jokes), Carolyn convinces him to host a “happening” with a musical performance by Alice Cooper (who Barnabas keeps referring to “Miss Cooper” and “that ugly woman”), and the film lurches into full-on Addams Family/Beetlejuice territory, making it appear that the burg’s denizens, including a scene-making Andy Warhol, are as strange as the residents of the house.

And one wonders what Burton was trying to accomplish with the cinematography. It’s so blown-out and blurry it’s as if he was trying to replicate the look of the primitive two-inch video format that the original show’s producers used in the 1960s.

Certainly, we can expect more Burton/Depp collaborations, and hopefully there will be more good ones, but Dark Shadows is an idea that should have stayed buried in its coffin. Why Burton didn’t stop everything and order rewrites of the horrendous script is beyond comprehension. As it stands, it plays like a bad remake of a Tim Burton movie.

Those Swinging’ 70s Vampire Films

The publicity drums are banging away for the May 11th release of Dark Shadows, and it’s making me nostalgic for some of the vampire films of the 1970s. Just as the “love generation” of the previous decade was fading into the sunset, and disco — with its attendant horrible fashions — was on the horizon, vampire films were also breathing their last gasp for a while.

Hammer Films was also getting ready to pack it in. Its last period-piece classic, Vampire Circus, was released in 1971 by 20th Century Fox, heavily cut in America for a PG rating, which was pointless, because the excised perversion was what the movie was all about! As sapphic vamp films go, the 1970 Ingrid Pitt starrer The Vampire Lovers isn’t bad, but 1971’s Twins of Evil is ridiculous. And the less said about Allan Gibson’s Dracula updates — Dracula A.D. 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula — the better.

The original Dark Shadows series starring the recently departed Jonathan Frid has its devoted followers, but that’s a cult I don’t really understand. I was just a little kid when it was on, but I still remember watching Grayson Hall as Dr. Julia Hoffman and thinking, “Jesus, this woman is a hambone.” I kept waiting for the creepy stuff to happen, but it was a lo-o-o-o-ng wait.

Much better were the movies. They had much more vampire activity and lots of gore (for the time). The first, House of Dark Shadows, starred most of the cast, including Hall and Frid, and plays like a faster, gorier version of the series.

The image that sticks in my mind in House is Barnabas getting really, really old (thanks to jealous Dr. Hoffman) and trying desperately to get some blood to reverse the process. Makeup artist Dick Smith (who also did The Exorcist) re-used the bald head appliance he made for Dustin Hoffman in 1970’s Little Big Man on Frid. To restore his youth, he goes to Maggie (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and puts the bite on her. Enjoy Hall’s hilarious emoting and the humorous makeup on Frid here:

I remember going to the good old Avon Art Theater (which, despite the highfalutin’ name, served as my hometown South Bend’s exploitation/trash house during the 1970s) to see Robert Quarry as Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Even today, it’s surprising that this American International pickup got a GP (the predecessor to PG) rating, as it’s pretty sleazy. Originally conceived as a softcore porn film, it still has aspects of its original, dirtier self. There’s at least one inexplicit but extended sex scene and women are running around in see-through blouses with their nipples a-poppin’.

Interestingly, the scene most everyone still talks about is the one in which the recently-vampirized chick is caught eating a kitten. Allegedly this scene was heavily trimmed to get the lower rating so that you could barely see what was going on, but maybe I saw a less brutally cut print, because I certainly remember the shock scene quite clearly, emphasized by the sickly green low-budget cinematography.

The Return of Count Yorga arrived in 1971, followed by The Deathmaster the following year. Neither one is very good, but the wise folks at American International decided to refer to Yorga as the deathmaster in the first film, making it confusing to audiences which film was which. But it didn’t really matter — neither one had the sleazy charm of the first Yorga.

American International also made sure the blaxploitation circuit was served with 1972’s Blacula, starring the elegant William Marshall as Mamuwalde, an African prince resurrected in (then) present-day Los Angeles to encounter all manner of jive-talking stereotypes. 1973’s indifferent sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, also features the awesome Pam Grier. It’s a tragedy that AIP didn’t hire writer/director Jack Hill — the king of exploitation and blaxploitation — to oversee these films. They’d have been so much better…maybe even classics.

More serious-minded was 1973’s Ganja and Hess, starring Night of the Living Dead‘s Duane Jones as a scientist who becomes infected with an insatiable need for human blood. Considered a rare example of ’70s African-American art cinema, it owes more to Buñuel than Blacula.

Another arty vampire flick from 1973 was Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural starring cult fave Cheryl (Rainbeaux) Smith as the title character, a backwoods girl who runs afoul of a pack of bloodsuckers, one of whom (Leslie Gibb) wants to get to know her a whole lot better. Dismissed upon its original release, the film was rediscovered in the ’90s and now has a cult following, especially after the untimely demise of Smith in 2002.

1971’s Daughters of Darkness, starring Last Year At Marienbad‘s Delphine Seyrig, brought Euro arthouse eroticism to the forefront. She plays a mysterious, Dietrich-style countess who seduces a pair of young travelers in an eerie coastal hotel. Seyrig is a striking bloodsucker and it’s easy to see why both Stefan (John Karlen) and Valerie (Danielle Ouimet) are so easily swayed.

Those who remember Karlen as Tyne Daly’s bearish husband in “Cagney and Lacey” will be shocked to see how young and well-built he is in this film. Though not explicitly gory, it’s got some Eurostyle nudity and a great vampire death-by-shower scene.

Bob (A Christmas Story) Clark and scripter Alan Ormsby blended the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” with a Vietnam war protest to make 1974’s Dead of Night, aka Deathdream, about a soldier, Andy (Richard Backus), who’s killed in action but whose mother wishes for him to come back to her. He does, and his elated parents think the reports of his death had been a clerical error, but actually dead and must feed on human blood to stave off the decaying process. Andy spends his days brooding in his room, refusing to see friends and relatives and only going out at night, behavior his parents write off as battle shock. But they soon realize there’s something even more terrifying wrong with their son.

Clark and Ormsby had previously made the cheap and overrated zombie comedy Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, so it’s surprising that this grim, sober and effective little shocker would come from them. It manages to be both eerie and tragic and still has an emotional heft today. When it was shown on KHJ’s Movie Macabre in 1982, Elvira’s puns and interruptions seemed terribly out of place.

Of course, there was time for vampire comedy before the ’70s wound down. David Niven appeared in 1975’s Old Dracula, a dreadful spoof whose original title — Vampira — was altered by hopeful distributors praying that fans of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein would race to the boxoffice. They didn’t.

1979’s Love at First Bite was more successful. George Hamilton is fine as the Lugosi-style vampire who travels from his native Transylvania to New York to find his bride, but Arte Johnson is a big slice of ham as his devoted assistant, and Susan Saint James, channeling Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane in the previous year’s Superman, is annoying. However, if I was forced to choose, I’d definitely prefer to sit through this than Brook’s 1995 disaster Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

So which camp will Burton’s Shadows reboot fall into — brilliant black comedy or awful spoof? I’ll find out on May 18th, at which time I’ll post my review.